Illustrated by Montana Artist Kit Mather
Twice Upon Historic Times
That Italian ship captain Christopher Columbus discovered the New World has long been accepted as a fact by historians and other scholars. After all, he and his company of seamen did make landfall on North America in A.D. 1492, shortly after October 12, at San Salvador, or Watlings Island, one of the Bahamas. And from thence to the mainland and peaceful contact and interaction with native residents. It is also a fact that Norsemen from Greenland (itinerant Vikings) had established temporary settlements at L'Ance aux Meadows in Nova Scotia several centuries before Columbus discovered America, possibly by as many as 15 human generations (McGee 1991:46-48)! With that complication in mind, for two relatively recent historical events, is it possible to establish persuasively who discovered Montana thousands of years earlier, and when?
Scholars generally accept the notion that, long ago (how long?), ancestral Amerindians entered the Western Hemisphere from Eastern Asia. Those pioneering First Peoples brought their Upper Paleolithic traditions and life experiences with them. They had survived by making essential adaptations to challenges posed by climate, environments, and locating and exploiting life-sustaining natural resources. It is to those founding Ice-Age predecessors where we must go to identify the Asian ancestors who colonized localities in the Americas during the Late Pleistocene.
Glaciation, Migration of Game and Modern Human Population Dispersal, and Adaptation
Planet Earth entered the most recent of Ice Ages nearly 35,000 B.P. For the next 15,000 years or longer, temperate climates were considerably colder than at present, and widespread continental and alpine glaciers covered northern latitudes of North America. Immigrating at some time or times under these constraining conditions, modern human families organized into family bands, groups of relatives, were sociable, effective hunter-gatherers who learned to live anywhere given enough incentive, success, and time. Some of these peoples had migrated eastward from a single Siberian population, no earlier than about 30,000 B.P. (and possibly after 22,000 B.P.), then migration from Beringia to the Americas after 16,500 B.P. (Goebel et al. 2008) into the unglaciated interior of Alaska via the Bering Land Bridge to become immigrants ancestral to some aboriginal inhabitants of the New World.
And some groups moved south of the alpine and continental glaciers of North America to find themselves entering, exploring, and then settling in to exploit resources of the Big Sky Country. Having arrived in North America, they evidently chose one of two ways to get south of the persisting ice masses. A postulated "ice-free corridor" between the mountain glaciers to the west and the continental glacier to the east, that was available for entry by ca. 12,500 B.P., is a feasible option. Evidence from the Pacific coastal plain of British Columbia establishes early human presence by 15,000 B.P., perhaps people following that route south of the late Ice-Age alpine ice masses. But, in any case, who were those intrepid hunters who reached early Montana, in an archaeological sense?
By 13,000 B.P., the continental glacier had receded as far north as central Saskatchewan. Left in its wake were extensive glacial meltwater lakes: Glacial Lake Missoula, Cut Bank, Great Falls, Musselshell, Jordan, Circle, and Glendive in northern Montana. Preservation of once-occupied localities such as the location of ice lobes, proglacial lakes, and basins and drainages on the unglaciated plains would have constrained where Paleolithic (Early Precontact Period) populations existed. While various geologic contexts afford opportunities to evaluate the potential of Late and Terminal Pleistocene human occupation of the region (Hill 1995), research has thus far provided no such evidence.
Neither geological or archaeological fieldwork has yielded evidence that early humans were active along the shorelines of those long-since dried up glacial lakes. The earliest dated human presence in Montana, at the 12,500-year-old Lindsay mammoth site, transpired some miles to the south of the nearest glacial lake and at least 3,000 years after the continental ice mass had melted northward into Canada on its way to its Hudson Bay origin.
Deep-Time Portals To The Human Past
As a long-time Montana archaeologist fascinated by the search for evidence regarding and interpreting the lives of Early Precontact Period peoples, I will briefly sketch what is understood about those earliest peoples who lived on changing Montana landscapes of the long ago. I will draw on results of studies at 10 informative Early Precontact (= Paleoamerican or Paleoindian) places they once occupied in Montana and expressed their individual lifeways. Figure 3 maps the distribution of these 10 sites and 21 other Early Precontact Montana occupations.
But, instead of beginning at the outset of initial Early Precontact human adaptations, we will start this quest by developing a reverse time perspective, beginning at the end of Early Precontact time in Montana. By so doing, we can first examine the diversity of adaptive patterns that might be outcomes or were at least derived in general ways from the earliest of documented inhabitants, those of the Early Precontact Period Pre-Clovis Complex peoples. What can we generalize regarding the lives of earliest peoples in Montana based on 60 years of intermittent archaeological interest? All members of human populations were Homo sapiens; all were limited to Stone Age technology; all were hunter-gatherers who sought their food rather than producing it; and each group was composed of extended family members organized into family bands, led by a male elder, which camped and moved together from place to place. Their distribution in space was determined largely by the seasonal availability of life-sustaining animal, plant, and mineral resources, the latter for basic toolmaking. Bands joined forces as macrobands in order to maximize their food-collecting capability, especially when help was needed to put in and preserve winter stores.
Climate and weather affected the whereabouts of bands at any given time of year. The reconstruction of past paleoenvironments is, thus, necessarily a key goal of archaeological field research. Changes in habitual environmental settings can affect whether game will be present predictably from one year to the next. Drought and famine can place constraints on habitability, while wet periods can foster growth of herds on which hunters were dependent.
Editor's Note: Les Davis was a Professor of Anthropology at Montana State University, and Curator of Anthropology and Ethnology at the Museum of the Rockies. He passed away in October, 2014. He was a determined researcher of paleoindians of Montana. His work has been published in many technical journals and popular articles and videos. Some of his posthumus work will continue to be presented here at Thisisbozeman.com.